This essay analyzes Christiaen van Couwenbergh’s The Rape of the Negress (1632). The author argues the image as theological artifact, capturing the emergence of a white colonial gaze and the Dutch state concern of Christian piety as an emerging colonial power. The article reviews the context of the image and the art reception history that resisted naming it an image of rape. The author juxtaposes the painting with a Marian statue hidden and thus saved from the Dutch iconoclasm—now one of the most famous Black Madonnas in Europe—to locate theologically the process of colonial unseeing and the refusal to name Black female flesh as sacred. She rereads these visual artifacts through the question of iconicity, and claim these images as sites of Black feminist fugitivity and resistance.
Amid the thick first half of the seventeenth century, a nascent Dutch Republic was emerging into its own sense of European identity on an exponentially expanding global stage. The winds of the Protestant Reformation had not spared spinning the windmills of the Dutch provinces, as an extended war broke out between the Protestant and Catholic states of central Europe, with political motives often parading as religious ideology. The Dutch spirit of dissent and revolt persisted through the Eighty Years’ War—the Dutch war of independence (1568–1648)—that ended with the official founding of the Netherlands in 1648. But the Dutch had already been on the imperial move, even as they trudged the road to European autonomy. Founded in 1602, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) would quickly secure a monopoly on trade between South Africa and South America. Eventually the VOC would control more than half of the entire world’s ocean-based trade, becoming the largest commercial enterprise in the world. The port of Amsterdam grew with this expansion, blooming into a global center for banking and trade. The VOC’s sister, the West India Company (WIC), was founded in 1621 to advance Dutch presence in the New World. By 1624, the WIC laid claim to an ideal port island called Manhattan, an island “purchased” for only sixty guilders. And by 1637, the Dutch would take over the infamous Elmina slave castle from the Portuguese, further solidifying their influence around the globe and the country’s own claims to prowess and prominence, as well as their colonial investments.
This is where we find her. Painted in canvas almost three and a half feet high and over four feet long, Christiaen van Couwenbergh’s jarring portrayal from 1632, The Rape of the Negress (fig. 1), is a gruesome but critical artifact that captures the crucible of the colonial moment for those imagined to be Black, to be female, and to be less than human in the moments of European Christian–colonial encounter.
As the Afro-Surinamese Dutch scholar Gloria Wekker (2016: 20) writes, “Racial imaginations are part and parcel of the Dutch psychological and cultural makeup; these imaginations are intertwined with our deepest desires and anxieties with who we are.” These racial imaginations are gendered, and what is more, they are buttressed by the Christian theological mores deeply embedded beneath the canals of Dutch identity. With this in mind, this essay argues that The Rape of the Negress is a theological text, one that captures the emergence of a white colonial gaze and the ideology of the Black woman as rapable flesh through the mirror of Dutch state concerns around Christian religious adherence, theological iconoclasm, and European identity formed at the brink of colonial power, slavery, and wealth. I read this painting within a Black feminist theological frame of analysis, specifically tracing the reception history of the naming of the painting, the refusal to describe it as rape, and the colonial unseeing of racial and gendered violence. I argue that the painting foregrounds the tropes of access to and violence against the Black female body as early as the seventeenth century—an inclusion that far precedes the early nineteenth-century timeline of Saartjie Baartman, the Hottentot Venus, whose images are some of the most cited figurations of Black female sexual excess. Thus, I turn to consideration of the Black Madonna, and the 1630 absconding of a Marian statue out of the Netherlands, as a counter-narrative to the colonial refusal of Black women’s bodies as sacred, juxtaposing the destruction of holy icons as constitutive moments of a white gaze we see in The Rape of the Negress. Without diminishing the violences of the painting, I argue that the painting as well as the Black Madonna should be considered sites of Black feminist fugitivity and resistance that call us to reconsider the subjectivity and accountability of such scenes of subjection.
Our attentions are narrowed, swept across a luminous canvas to the animated struggle of a naked Black woman. She hangs askew, slightly right of center, alerting us that something here is awry. Her right arm thrusts into the air, the outline of skin shadowed in strokes of grey—the imperceptible hum and blurred whirring of her mechanically urgent movements captured in warm hue. She is signaling, waving—no—struggling, fighting; her outstretched fingers splay in search of an assistance out of reach. A white man sits naked at the edge of a mattress, holding the disrobed woman in his lap. He restrains her body, gripping her at the thigh and forearm. She twists awkwardly attempting to wrench herself away, but to no avail. Her feet hover just above the wooden planks of the floor, the weighted tension of her body torqued against her suppressor signaling his leverage and her futility. Her contorted position intensifies the fear that has infused every detail of her face. Panicked and strained, her mouth gapes wide, frantic with shrieks we cannot hear—her eyes plead rage, petitions for a God we cannot see.
We are asked to look upon an unwilling sacrifice at the most ancient of altars, a disheveled bed unmade and undone, crude and cruel, a table prepared for what is to come. The man restraining her does not look at her, his disinterested gaze filled with flat apathy. Not seeing his prey, his eyes float toward his compatriot—a second white man, partially naked, pale thighs exposed beneath a crisply textured sheet he holds loosely around his waist. While one hand holds up the covering for his lower body, the other is raised, “a nod to the religious tradition,” as “the gestures made by the rapist’s companions are a clear case of the devil quoting scripture to serve his own purpose” (Pipkin 2013: 93). Eyeing his audience with an indeterminate expression, the casual glance over his shoulder breaks the fourth wall with mocking conceit, a sordid playback loop watching us watch his friend watching him. All of this looking, and still, even in her state of hypervisibility, no one sees the Black woman.1 Both internal and external to the scene, he shepherds us from the border frame through the conglomerate obscenities of observance still refusing to acknowledge her subjectivity. Only a pointed index finger returns our eyes to the suspended moment of physical subjection. The body language, hand gesture, and facial expression offer no accusation, commentary, criticism, or disruption—they simply ground us in a violent present.
We do not know how we have gotten here, how he, the other men, or the woman have entered this moment in time, only that our gaze is collapsed in warped apprehension. There is a third and final man. Fully clothed in decorative costume, he stares through the shadow, angled behind the struggle centering the scene. He raises both hands before him, spreading his fingers in a declaration of innocence. His body language articulates surprise, surrender, and deflection from his own culpability in the matter, but as he maintains his voyeuristic posture, he consents to participate, his astonishment unmoored from an ethical impulse to intervene. The progressive states of undress among the three white men are revelatory in their unveiling, a detail of episodic discovery mimicked through the progressive gestures of their hands, a body language that heightens the inflections of their gaze. Collectively they offer a sustained fermata of the event, a teleological suspension that elides the past, penetrates the present, and anticipates a violent eschatology—an “already-not-yet” future end. Arrested by a suspended image that only mimics the suspension of time, the viewer cannot keep from crashing into the future it forebodes.
The men in this image are invariably white and invariably Dutch. They are not individual selves, but a gathered community with a shared ethos of collaborative violence reinforced by white supremacy. As Amanda Pipkin (2013: 94n48) describes, even an “optimistic analysis of [this] painting of three young white men raping a [B]lack woman is that it served to critique the debauchery of student life and the existing social and racial hierarchies where men could commit such crimes with impunity.” These are not sins relegated solely to the level of individual action, but of state sanctions. Their codes of ethics and honor work themselves out behind the canvas. One as three, or three in one, they are a trinity of colonialist posture—chronicler/narrator, explorer/enforcer, and bystander/benefactor. Their depiction enacts colonial modalities of intrusion and consumption with impunity, in part because these men are not just white and Dutch, but Christian. They pervert omniscience and omnipresence via a racial optic, a corruption of divine attribute.
Despite the fact that Dutch culture and life were suffused with a puritan sense of ethics, the art of the seventeenth century detailed a number of scenes that would confirm the Dutch “were not shy of erotic depictions” (Haak 1996: 326). Yet, even for a culture that regularly explored sex and violence in the visual field, art historians and commentators insistently note the conspicuous difference in content and tone of this image as an outlier: “This one goes beyond the usual bounds” (Haak 1996: 326). What are the “usual bounds” of uninhibited artistic expression? Where exactly is the transgression defined? The attempted subtlety is but a stark reminder of the insistent refusal to name a deeply social and theological truth about violence at the intersections of race and gender, another way of not saying what must be said: that even in art, violence against Black women remains illegible before a normative white gaze. No one in the scene is looking at her. No one in the scene sees her. How then can we?
For the disproportionately few historians and critics who have offered comment on this painting, The Rape of a Negress presents only a discomfiting enigma—it is unusual, but not egregious. On several fronts the painting is obscure, inciting both a clear prudence and reticence in its reception as anomalous. Had the artist included an inscription or title himself, perhaps we would know more about the visual he depicted. But for centuries this early portrayal of the Black body languished in the shadows of masterpieces much more celebrated, its creator shrouded in anonymity among far more celebrated contemporaries like Rembrandt and Vermeer. Only in 1940 was the work identified as that of Christiaen van Couwenbergh, a well-respected history painter hailing from Delft. Of the eighty-eight paintings that have since been confirmed to comprise his oeuvre, there is nothing that compares to this, no scenes without direct and easy historical location, with only one other painting inclusive of a Black figure.2 The sheer expanse of the canvas nauseates, immediately intimating the wealth of its owner. Even in the free market economy of Golden Age art, a painting of such measure would have been too great an expense to undertake without a sense of demand.3 Discerning tastes required great discrimination and care, and the images adorning museum corridors, the emblems now memorializing times past, are those that “privileged male artists thought would appeal to potential buyers” (Muizelaar and Phillips 2003: 4). With its excess of size and obscenity of composition, by every estimation this painting was meant for an audience.
The scene itself is crude and disheveled, reinforcing the emotions and interactions within the cloistered space. Little attention is given to detailing the background, daubed in muted tones of brackish light and heavy shadow. An unadorned pediment headboard reinforces notions of austerity. With sheets in disarray and straw springing from the worn mattress, the unmade bed suggests the disturbance of order and the disheveling of emotion; this is chaos, the sign of the reprobate. A chair frame peeks from beneath the careless heap of clothes, hurriedly cast off, obscuring any sign of cushion or comfort. An uncovered chamber pot rests on a tripod stool.
A typical Dutch motif, the pot brings an element of documentary witness to the chamber interior. Usually stored beneath the bed, it too rests in medias res, oddly out of place.4 Left uncovered and exposed, the pot speaks to a lack of decorum and discretion. A haptic, olfactory element evokes further disgust: the stench of sweat, bodies, wood, hay, urine, and feces encircles our nostrils, an epistemological miasma; the reminder that to look here is to be caught in the process of seeing something foul, inappropriate for civilized public consumption. Like many contemporary still life portraits that depict rotting fruit with bugs or flies, so too this image foregrounds a kind of decay signified by the presence of filth. Sparseness heightens the unsettling gravity of the scene, the “sentiment du déshabillé” that implies this is something one would be mistaken to witness, neither as an audience nor, subsequently, as participants (Le Bideau-Vincent 2009: 186). If the woman is experiencing the etymological breadth of le rapt—her rape—then the viewer is implicated in the moment of her abduction.
Diane Wolfthal (1999) has contrasted this painting with Dutch baroque depictions of white women within interior domestic spaces. Referencing the extensive scholarship on these painted environments, she notes that typical depictions feature “rooms [that] are sparklingly clean, ‘beds spotless, unrumpled and without stain and suspicion,’ [where] the domestic interior has been transformed into a sign of moral purity and domestic tranquility” (Wolfthal 1999: 194–95). In these images, women depicted in organized interior spaces symbolize chastity, holiness, and honor associated with the recognition of and capitulation to a proper theological order, a moral standard where women are protected when they are in the right place, the domestic domain. Women who were outdoors—too close to or caught looking out of windows, standing in open doorways, or actually, heaven forbid, on the street—were seen as problematically curious, inappropriately inviting, and lacking integrity. Their artistic relationship to architecture and to the “outside” world was a euphemism for promiscuity and prostitution (Van de Pol 2010).5 But the Couwenbergh painting depicts no door, window, or entryway; no indication of interruption or escape from incarceration. This is a domestic dungeon, and the Black woman is reduced to an Other out of place. Her disposal will not be disruptive. The precarity of Blackness is indexed by the inaccessibility of safe space, especially within the borders of domesticity.
The arrangement of bodies pendulum the eye as it ricochets off the surfaces of darkness and light, the balance between shadows—the woman’s flesh, the man’s costume—alternating with the light bouncing off the naked white flesh of the two others in the room. The narrator stands prominently to the left, his figure the brightest. The fabric sheet around his waist crisp and resplendently white, its gleaming detail luminescent against the pale skin of its wearer in the textural study of realism, drape and fold. The influence of Caravaggio and the use of chiaroscuro are explicit in the subtext of shadows and contrast lurking throughout the scene, but where Caravaggio favored an unidentified source of light to illuminate a central figure, Couwenbergh overwhelms the foreground. White bodies efface the focality of light—the single source reflected in the surface of the chamber vase—juxtaposed with the absorbing use of black paint, the energy of the Black woman’s flesh.
The pointing figure mimes a classic framing trope, instructing the viewer where to look. His pointing inversely draws attention to himself as pointer, an intentional sleight of hand that guides the trajectory of the gaze while staging the modalities of interpretation: this is what you are to see. His facial expression is smug, returning the “amused” look on the seated man’s face: “grin[ning] in our direction, as if sharing a joke with us” (Blankert 1999: 156). As it were, this figure is the artist in his own likeness (Van Gelder 1949). The image is doubled over as Couwenbergh frames the stage first as the artist, then again as a party to the scene itself—a strange simulacrum, even as the image only transfers the features of Couwenbergh’s face into its likeness (not necessarily his body, nor his historical presence), disturbing our understanding of his “real” spatial relation to the scene.
Historically, artists inserted themselves into their own paintings to align themselves with wealth, power, and prestige—what is the work of insertion in this context? Is this a copy or a simulation of an event, or a “sadistic erotic fantasy” (Wolfthal 1999)? It is impossible to know exactly what Couwenbergh means by projecting himself on this canvas in this scene, but the mimesis questions how the artist perceives perspective, how (or why) he wishes to accommodate a certain optic. What is his relationship to the scene from the perspective of the painted man, from that of the artist, or from that of the viewer? Is he exploiting an opportunity or painting his complicity? We lose the story, the identity, the subjectivity of the Black woman in this painting, but we have not completely lost the artist as an invisible hand. Rather, his insertion forces a return to his role, his attitude, his relation to this piece and the power and domination it presents. His presence returns us to the contexts of production, and the sustained refusal and discipline of the Black body.
As both artist and pedagogue, Couwenbergh implicates the viewer twice over; even the most prudent observer has been betrayed by him into an inhumane display. This is not a haphazard mistake; it is an invitation that instantiates the fields of colonial power:
The white body as viewer, to sustain its power, must constantly repel, redirect, erase or otherwise sublimate the other’s gaze and sensory world as inauthentic, uncivilized, unscientific and inadequate. This rupture between imagined and actual bodies—what the white subject perceives and wants to see and what is actually there—marks the inability of whites to see [B]lacks outside of a racialized projection of their own bodily privilege. To this extent, within the context of colonial vision, white subjects suffer from a strategic blindness. (Nelson 2010: 181)
Strategic blindness is the pondering, questioning, objectifying gaze that marks the illegibility and misrecognition of the Black subject. It is the very thing that reduces a Black person to a Black body, a Black woman to Black flesh (Spillers 1987: 67). More precisely, this process of unseeing functions to uphold the cognitive colonial dissonance that makes the whiteness of the other subjects, and doubly of those who are collector-consumers of the Black woman’s naked image, invisible and unquestioned. As Charmaine Nelson (2010: 180) describes of Black female representation in Western art writ large:
The critical point of intersection, that point of connection between the gaze and the image, is the process through which re-imagination becomes re-presentation; the process where what one “sees” is translated into an actual art or visual cultural object that represents another’s body. But because it is the identity and subjectivity of the white artist that is the dominant structuring element of the [B]lack female subject, the archive of representations of the [B]lack female subject reveals the white body/subject as a constant haunting absence.
At the level of nomenclature, this “haunting absence” is manifest through the insistence on rendering white male sexual violence against a Black woman invisible. These notions of avoidance, of unseeing the image, are perhaps most nuanced in the shuffling of titles and interpretative analysis in the reception history of the painting, a limited archive that until recently has failed to name the subjectivity, much less the pain, of the woman imaged here. Rather than outrage, interrogation, or protest, avoidance has filled the gap for the historical questions of this painting that are so difficult to account for: Who is this woman? Who are these men? Was—is—this a scene of real life? There are no indications in the local archives that reflect a historical event this painting may be capturing. There is no way to elucidate what Couwenbergh conjured in his own mind, whether from memory, fantasy, or an amalgamation of both and beyond. Because of this, more than one critic has suggested the scene is so graphic as to only be fictional, possibly inspired by a literary source—though plausible deniability seems to raise far less savory questions about Couwenbergh’s supposed imagination.
Several of the most prominent commentators, in their expertise, arguably come to harmfully ambiguous conclusions. Van Gelder (1949) did not assign a title to the painting at all. Instead, keeping it unnamed, he assigned it to the category of genre. Though the early part of the century witnessed a preference for historical paintings—those depicting scenes from mythology, scripture, and literature—genre paintings catered to the “newly enriched bourgeoisie with an insatiable appetite for the pleasures and astonishments of ‘real life’” (Lucie-Smith 1991: 92). Genre paintings served similar aims to contemporary advertising schemas, providing a means to “mirror back and promote certain ideals of domestic living to their viewers” (Westermann 2001: 18). The reflections in these mirrors were not always exact, comprehensive, or true, but they were carefully composed artifacts, the majority created for men, by men.6 What does an image like this advertise? While there remains an adroit avoidance of naming this image, Van Gelder’s categorization at least retains the possibility that the painting reflects some kind of contemporaneous life reality: if not an actual event, then an expression of the white male fantasy of Black subjection.
Writing in 1972, Victor Beyer insisted the image simply could not have been the reportage of a contemporary event. Beyer thus suggested the chance possibility the image was a literary event drawn from two verses in Song X of Os Lusíadas, the Portuguese epic poem by Camões—this, however, only after first asking, “Mais ce fait, quel est il?” (But this fact, what is it?) The poem tells of a Portuguese voyage of conquest and “discovery,” and depicts the story of Albuquerque, the conquistador who orders the execution of one of the ship captains as punishment for having sex with the enslaved Black woman on board. The narrator contends that the captain has not committed any crime, as sex with a Black woman does not constitute rape or adultery—instead, given that she is a “gift” to the queen of Portugal, the captain is only guilty of the violation of property.
Beyer soon admits that the reference to the song is in many ways unconvincing, requiring several suggestive leaps despite a number of inconsistencies between text and image, to say the least of the generalized randomness of the connection. What is significant is the tacit reticence to consider the most obvious interpretation—that this image is the rape of a Black woman. Even in this example, were the poem truly the source for the painting, there is still a latent archival commitment to avoid addressing sexual violence against a Black person on its own terms. As the poem describes, the sexual violence here does not play on par with the sins of “abominable” incest, rape, nor adultery, but is reduced in the hierarchy of errors to falling prey to one marked reprobate and lascivious herself, indicting her as an accessory to her own brutalization. (It is worth noting that the poem itself reserves the capacity for rape only in the context of whiteness—the “ruffian rape of virgin pure”—where the Black woman on board is described as “wanton slave-girl, vile, obscure”; Camões 1880: 378–79). Beyer’s ultimate conclusion, fictive or not, resists the commitments and accountability of naming this as rape, and rests on an adroit and sanitizing ambiguity.
In his catalogue raisonné of Couwenbergh’s work, W. C. Maier-Preusker (1991: 196) suggested the scene depicts a man preparing himself to bathe and also to “whitewash” the Black woman. The white men laugh in jest at their friend’s futility. Maier-Preusker suggests the painting references the biblical scene of Jeremiah 13:23, which asks whether or not a leopard can change his spots, or an Ethiopian his skin. This is perhaps a modern amalgamation with Aesop’s fable of the man who thought that the Ethiopian he enslaved had dark skin because it was dirty, and subsequently took to scrubbing him almost to death. Despite describing the painting as “crude,” and the Black woman as “fearful” and “defensive,” Maier-Preusker almost casually concludes the intent is comedic, a ludicrous scene reflecting the shock and awe of a bathing test case, the innocuous jeers of explorations in exfoliating violence. This gesture toward an exegetical interpretation attempts to resolve the clear tension of the work, perhaps in part because, as several art historians describe, biblical scenes of rape and violence were not viewed as particularly offensive (see Wolfthal 2009; Muizelaar and Phillips 2003). Moreover, there are other contemporary examples of biblical scenes redacted in paint, imaging newly sexualized female characters in scenes infused with gratuitous eroticism.5 Does the violent attempt to wash the Blackness out of the woman’s skin arouse sensual appeal for the viewer? Does desperation evoke a sense of the erotic? The Jeremiah verse was often taken to infer doing something in vain, knowing it already to be an impossibility—is this fraternity simply seeing if the rumors of the Black body are true? While a different scenario of violence, the painting includes no bathing accessories, no water. Associating the image with any biblical justification is a nuanced attempt to cleanse its contents, a subtle inflection that the image of a naked Black woman’s body, in the presence of stripped white men, can be redeemed if linked to a vision of purification, no matter how cruel or senseless.
Since Maier-Preusker, various references to the painting have found other ways to avoid associating the painting with rape, instead preferring iterations of a more innocuous description, “Three young white men and a black woman” (Blankert 1999: 156).7 The title is a clear attempt to avoid both a discussion and an admission of the subject of the painting, evading culpabilities that such an analysis might infer. While there were no clear laws against rape as sexual assault in the Netherlands at the time, the juridical notions of women as property were directly shifting to those marking women as violable subjects whose legibility was articulated through conceptions of honor and innocence.8 And yet, the concept of rape was not absent from the Dutch imagination at all. As the historian Amanda Pipkin (2013: 3) describes, “rape was fundamental to the cultural construction of Dutch national identity during the first half of the seventeenth century” (emphasis added). If we note “an unflagging refusal” to address the topic of rape in this corner of the Dutch archive, it is not due to some sense of care for anachronistic preservation but exists in direct relationship to race (Jean-Charles 2006: 4). Blankert (1999: 159) argues that the problem of the subject matter is not that the depiction “is sexually explicit, nor [that] it shows a [B]lack woman being violated—which was not an offence, as we are told by the Portuguese Camões. But in seventeenth-century Holland a sexual liaison with a [B]lack woman was in itself a moral transgression, which, by today’s standards, would of course be equally racist.” The Black woman’s clear fighting and resistance is left bereft of the indictment it presumes.
The Rape of the Negress paints a “vision” of its objects in relation, beyond “mere recognition” of who, or what, their bodies are. We watch as accomplice voyeurs, irrespective of intention. Whether horrified or (horrifically) aroused, innocence is drained from the viewer’s standpoint, where perhaps it is true that “we feel as if we are either complacent bystanders or even accomplices” (Wolfthal 1991: 191). Such is the power of painting a vision, of making it plain. If this is indeed the case, the unknown audience of this image provides more questions than answers: “Again, one wonders who ordered it” (Haak 1996: 326). A moral statement about the violence portrayed in the portrait is unnecessary to effectively communicate the portrayal of violence itself. Whereas claims that historicize the visual representation of Black women’s bodies as productive of violence are indeed important to contemporary concerns about how Black women’s bodies are treated in the world, what this image shows is an antecedent of that very narrative, the very disruption of the narrative itself. This image makes (some) historians and viewers uncomfortable, precisely because this Black woman demonstrates no willingness in this moment. There is no slack in her posture, no decorative attire, no relaxation of the muscles, no smirk or smile marking an ambiguous welcome of her body. She is anything but desiring. This Black woman, however “eroticized” her resistance may be for the other characters in the painting, or even for the intended viewership, is not complicit in the act, nor in the viewer’s consumption. The question of how such violence is named through the archive retroactively speaks to the continued inferences of power around how narratives of the Black body are shaped through a gaze structured by even the earliest structures of whiteness. I intentionally infer the Black body here to insist on the ways Black humanity is actively obscured through the image, disarticulated from a field of relations, and left as invisibilized as the power of the white gaze guiding the image itself. The men in this image do not see a Black person, certainly not someone with dignity or worth equal to their own. This piece canonizes what is often presumed to be known, the theo-logics of race operating at the nexus of the imagined Black body’s sexuality with the idea of the Black body as inhuman. The violence and brutalization of the Black (presumed female) body can be charged to no agent other than the inevitable, the (in)act(ion) of God. The painting is an ideological archive, a visual record of the unfettered access to bodies of the Other in colonialism and enslavement. And yet, the presumptions of divine distance that emerge within Couwenbergh’s frame are not the only narrative of engagement for the image of the Black flesh in Holland.
The beginnings of the revolution that would result in the founding of the Netherlands in 1648 were precipitated by a wave of iconoclasm during the summer of 1566. The beeldenstorm (statue storm), which would spread like fire throughout Europe, was relatively brief but intense in its toll. Like many Protestants, the Dutch Calvinists were extremely skeptical of religious images and practices that were closely associated with the Spanish and the associated religious and cultural practices of Catholic devotion. The predominantly Calvinist response to Catholic rule, both theological and political, left innumerable images, statues, and paintings in Catholic churches destroyed.9 When the Spanish invaded and besieged the city of Den Bosch, six Carmelite nuns instigated their own act of revolution. Together they abandoned the city in search of refuge, crossing the border until they reached Cologne, Germany—but they did not go alone. In the most exigent of circumstances, if the women were to flee, one of the miraculous statues of Mary that the city was famed for was to flee with them. The fugitive Mary is a delicately carved wooden statue showing a regal Mary holding her son, the Christ child, in her left arm.10 Today she is a giver of mercy, a formal image of grace (gnadenbild) known to heal the sick and answer prayers. Housed at St. Maria in der Kupfergasse sanctuary in the center of Cologne, she is the Black Mother of God, one of the most famous Black Madonnas in the world (fig. 2).
Today there are over three hundred “formal” Black Madonnas that pepper the European landscape. Their formality is described by their broader recognition by the Church, the miracles and Marian devotion attached to their presence, and the spiritual quality attached to their presumed difference—the Black Madonnas of Europe are almost always juxtaposed as unique outliers (if not also rendered exotic) among the landscapes of white European Marian renderings that remain dominant, controlling images across the world.11 Theologically their exegesis came via the Song of Songs formulation—Black and beautiful am I—and they stood as symbols of power, of protection, and of the unintelligible yet material speech-act of God. Though initially rendered as obvious sites of the miraculous, it was only in the wake of modernity that the appearance of Black Madonnas began to be scientifically “explained away” as either separately inculturated images, or simply the by-product of physical deterioration from exposure to smoke, a breakdown of minerals in paints, and wear and tear. Though inconsistent at best, questions around whether or not images were copied with dark skin, or about instances where images were lightened, still press the “validity” of the tradition.
Scholars have assumed that Mary was never meant to be depicted as an African, but in and of itself this is a tenuous claim. For one, one might question the notion of intent as the primary marker of meaning. Two, it is important to recall that authorial intent does not predicate interpretative experience. Which is to say, whether “Black skin” and “person from Africa” were completely and statically synonymous or not, how people viewed, interacted with, and prayed to Black virgins likely still intersects with the perception of Black skin and/or African peoples and their presence in Europe, or as Monique Scheer (2002: 1413) describes, “how perception and aesthetic experience are determined by culture.” However, the debate around intent, and by extension plausibility, still “oscillat[es] between extremes of exoticization and denial” (Scheer 2002: 1413). The emergence of any image of the Black female body might be (at the least) juxtaposed with the shifts that index the incoherence of the Black Madonna traditions, and more particularly, the demeaning of her Blackness within the Christian theological canon. This is not to espouse the virginity of these Madonna images as a singular virtue, for the juxtaposition of Blackness and virginity expands the definitive lens of purity and holiness that may or may not be attributed to either quality, not reifying one with the other. This instead points us to note how the need to deny her Blackness and its materialization subtend a theological reification of Black skin as marking a sexually available body. The phenomenon of the Black Madonna, then—whose apparitions, legends, and icons can be found at the center of numerous Marian cults that continue to attract millions of religious pilgrims each year—is arguably one of the most critically disruptive sites of the unorthodox within the presumed orthodox, of possibility within impossibility, that has shaped a significant portion of Christian history. Yet the Black Madonnas of Europe remain fugitive in their resistance, resisting a Christian theological imagination that aligned purity and election with white skin. This is to say that there was a Christian theological precedent for Black flesh not as unrapable, but as inviolable—a canon that imaged Black female flesh as sacred—that was denigrated and ignored amid the European Christian colonial project.
The story of the fugitive Black Madonna escaping plunder and destruction on the burgeoning colonial stage is the religious background to the social imaginary that birthed The Rape of the Negress. We take the image of the Black Madonna in reverence and in rescue, of leaving the Dutch landscape in search of safety, as a metaphor for the shifting lens toward Black flesh, as a narrative of Black fugitivity and flight that continues to resist the notion of holiness as only being held in whiteness. As contact with bodies of darker shades and hues increased throughout Europe, so too did the theological unbecoming of dark skin from the definition of full humanity. On the Dutch stage, the backlash to iconoclasm was a flurry of images, a flourishing of art in new ways and new forms as wealth amassed and contact with Black “others” increased. Here the invisible framed the visible, the representation of daily life, in ways that specifically mark the ideological baptism of the Black female body in the waters of the profane, in the aesthetic denials of sacred iconicity. The image of the unnamed woman in Couwenbergh’s painting as well as the explanatory frustrations of the Black icon index a fundamental incoherence of Black life, marked by oscillations from the venerated status of virginity to the denigrating conquest of Black flesh. We are returned to the scene of a Black woman in the painting, to the decorated altar of a Black woman made refugee, as scenes of Black feminist fugitivity. We are reminded that Black women have been running for a very long time.
Among the atrocities committed against the varieties of dark flesh on a global scale, there was certainly a register of sexual, gendered violence compounded through the lens of race, through what Moya Bailey and Trudy (2018) have since termed misogynoir.12 As many Black feminists assert, the genealogies of sexual violence against women of color are linked to the exotic mythologies of Black female sexual excess, but this notion of the body is deeply indebted to a white European Christian theological imagination. Physical and particularly sexual violence were justified by the idea of predestined predispositions, temptations, hypersexualized desires, and behaviors. A “natural” sexual appetite was attributed to peoples of darker skin, and theorized as a mark of their primitive, animalistic, and lower place in a hierarchy of God’s creation—by theologies of reprobation that cemented “the logical conclusion of Black incapacity” (Jennings 2011: 34).
When it comes to those racialized Black and gendered woman, the social denials of agency, the assumption of rapable flesh, manifest through the denial not just of what we see, but how we see. In the process of their looking, the three men in The Rape of the Negress perform supremacy, structurally, on theological grounds. And yet, with particularity, they too perform the Christian-colonial work of naming. They determine and mark that which they see as property subject to their authority. As Nelson (2010: 179) says:
As a colonial invention, Black Woman and her precursor Black Girl are a measure of white colonial fear/desire and the abject [B]lack female subject is revelatory of an imagined whiteness, equally fictive and reified through an incessant socio-cultural and racist collective narcissism that builds this imagined racial purity through the perpetual exploitation and marginalization of [B]lack subjects.
The problem is that Christianity itself must be called into question as an arbiter of this incessant “collective narcissism,” as the institution that informed the way of (un)seeing, the incubator of an idolatrous looking. European colonialism breaks Black bodies. It is difficult to evade such captivity—whether captured, or captivated—by the coerced intimacy of the painting itself. The effects of consumption are inherent to the very act of looking. And yet, while there is meant to be no escape, there is still refusal.
The Rape of the Negress witnesses imperial power, and the anxieties and fantasies around the stabilization of that power, with shocking clarity (as the refusal of the Black woman viewer simultaneously witnesses against it). In other words, the image becomes for the viewer a kind of “antidote for those who interpret colonialism as a process by which Europe brought ‘civilization’ to the Third World; it gives the lie to the myth that contact with white society brought only positive changes for Africans” (Wolfthal 1999: 197). The white gaze is one that does not see, but rather chooses to look askance and away. We know how the Black body becomes object. Here we also see how the white body becomes subject, how white men (attempt to) become like God.
What then can be done when there is so little we are given, when we know nothing about her, when the archive leaves us bereft of much more than epistemological violence? There is nothing that indicates who she was or where she came from; we know only of her dispossession. She has been stripped of her clothing, of any other markers that would distinguish her but for a small bonnet still tied to her hair, a possible sign of socioeconomic status. While head coverings frequently indicate servitude or lower-class stature for women in European paintings, Couwenbergh regularly prefers to style the women in his paintings with the braided, decorative hairstyles of the time. However, in the one other depiction of a Black woman that Couwenbergh paints, she too wears a bonnet of similar style to the Black woman in this painting.13 It seems that Couwenbergh intends to mark Black women, though the specific symbol remains opaque for a contemporary audience. The bonnet thus reminds us of the breach of modesty, the misrecognition of humanity at play, and of a definition of womanhood to which the Black woman does not have access.14 To this point, Couwenbergh has dispensed with the diaphanous fabric that is typically depicted draped over the lap and genitals of a naked woman. The use of fabric would have been an opportunity to flaunt technique, its folds meant to flirt with the eye, the textured hint of erotic overture just beyond the veil of a translucent lens. Of course, the fabric that suggests nudity is not necessary to actually depict nudity—but its absence signals the gratuitous. The Black woman is not situated within the realm of the erotic save for her captivity.
The Rape of the Negress thus draws us into a particular optic, a process of seeing that is formative and pedagogical for the white audience for whom the painting was created. Because she could be from any place, practice any religion, or speak any language, there is an anonymity that transforms the materiality of her body into a floating signifier, and subtends the logics of enclosure that dispossesses the Black woman (and those who would view her in this moment) from identity and dignity, from place and time. And yet, “I want to say more than this. I want to do more than recount the violence that deposited these traces in the archive” (Hartman 2008: 2). She is a fictive amalgamation of rapable flesh, and yet, this is not all she (re)presents. This is not an image centered on Black female flesh as hyper-erotic imaginary, but on the perverse performance of white masculinity as it is expressed against Black female flesh. This is capture. And yet, the Black woman here resists. She has given no invitation, and her refusal is transparent through what might too quickly be assumed to be the opaque disposition of the white imperial gaze. The idea of agency does not absolve the violence of the image, and yet how are we to hear the echoes of her screams? For, as Ashon Crawley (2012: 34) notes in the context of the narrative of Harriet Jacobs, “To consider the sounds, those piteous groans, is to think about how sound can prompt movement toward escape.” If she is met with strategic blindness, what might be said through a rendering of strategic hearing? Can such “residual materiality” call us to listen through the captivity, to the sonic rendering of the terrible, to attend to the Black woman’s scream as “a desire, a provocation against such an institution?” (Crawley 2012: 33).
There is, in some sense, little to conclude here among a myriad of introductions. Colonial violence, visual unseeing, and denials of rape are not new, yet this essay follows the thread of the theological dimensions of violence in the visual field with and against the broader notions of colonial enterprise. The Rape of the Negress provides a critical site, not only for a kind of theological accountability, but to question the competing forces of how we see or unsee Black bodies as iconic, how we attend to a legacy of the sacrality of Black flesh, and how we might think alongside Black capacities for reproduction as signals of resistance and futurity even in the midst of abjection. The Dutch Golden Age is marked by an intentional movement away from, if not the destruction of, religious iconography—a “religious storm” against Black bodies presumed damned from their start. The Rape of the Negress, then, is a site where we can begin to name rape, name such complicities, while thinking reparations for such violences. This image is perhaps a way to address the past that is never past, the sense of that “haunting absence,” that “sentiment du déshabillé,” and to think again what would be required to depict and enflesh Black humanity. We return here with tension, torn between a horrific reality and the incessant problem of reinscribing Black pain for intellectual consumption, and yet resisting the gaze intended in an effort to see the Black woman who is there—to move beyond being bound to the expanding privileging of white male flesh, iconocratically, and an empire of the gaze. Out from the shadows, this painting captures the negligence, complicity, and culpability for the wake of violences across Europe and its empires. The Rape of the Negress is an object lesson in the relativity of proximity, in approximation, and in the fugitivity of Black resistance we glimpse when it seems no one else is looking—her resounding claims to her life, even when facing death. This is a canvas that depicts a cruel world, the witness of Black flesh as testified to—or rather, translated by—the white masculine optic. Even in paint, she does not go quietly.
I use the terms Black woman and Black female flesh as means to mark the racial and gendered difference at work in the image, and the presumptions of the archive itself, acknowledging the problems and limitations of the language of woman and the ways that gendered and sexed difference is irreducible to the body, especially for someone of African descent within a frame of colonial encounter and patriarchy.
Couwenbergh’s The Finding of Moses is the only other painting in his catalog that clearly features a Black woman. Outside of this biblical scene, the closest approximations of nakedness and/or rape in Couwenbergh’s paintings are two additional biblical depictions, one of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph, the other a painting of Susanna.
According to Haak (1996: 11), “Clues to patrons’ wishes and demands are therefore scanty, a phenomenon in itself indicative of the religious, social, and political atmosphere in which the paintings originated. The Dutch Republic was newly Protestant and newly independent; the Calvinist Church eschewed adornment as a matter of principle and therefore did not patronize artists. . . . The major customers were, rather, the citizens themselves and their civic organizations. Indeed, the greater number of paintings was created not on commission but for the free market.”
Historically, certain items deemed to be less respectable or lacking in good taste in paintings were edited to be more acceptable. The visibility of the chamber pot in The Rape of the Negress presses an insistence of “real” humanity, including its aspects of stench and filth, into the frame of the interpretation. One cannot help but think of the Freudian relation between feces and gold, given this painting’s center in the Golden Age.
As Muizelaar and Phillips (2003: 7) also describe,
More than anything else, a woman’s honor and respectability rested on her sexual behavior: virginity was expected of the unmarried, fidelity of the married. What was really at stake, however, was the honor of the men to whom women were related. A man’s honor did not rest on his sexual conduct in the same way. In fact, he would often express his masculinity by trying to seduce the women of others. The head of the household was thus keenly aware of the need to exercise vigilance in regard to “his” women. His own honor was defined by his success in doing so. Men considered women weak, pious, and sexually innocent, and protection against the advances of other men. At the same time, they saw women as having an insatiable sexual appetite that derived from their physiology. . . . They were, after all, seen as daughters of Eve.
“As far as the producers were concerned, nearly all were men, usually from a relatively privileged segment of society. For most, the production of paintings was more a business than a channel of personal expression and creativity. Like other goods and services, paintings were produced ‘in the hope of arousing interest and finding a buyer’” (Muizelaar and Phillips 2003: 4).
In the exhibition catalog, Albert Blankert (1999: 156) also insists this must be an episode from a story but concedes that “this painting has baffled experts right from the start. Yet another effort was made to interpret it for the present exhibition catalogue but unfortunately with no result.”
For more on the gendered legalities of property in the Netherlands and the contemporary understanding of rape, see Van der Heijden 2000.
“These are the poles of iconoclasm in 1566: on the one hand, disorderly destruction, plundering and theft, with motives that were violent or mercenary; on the other hand, controlled and sometimes systematic iconoclasm, often for sound theological reasons, with little if any theft and some saving on the grounds of the artistic merit of particular works of art” (Freedberg 1986: 75).
The statue itself is carved from linden wood, and inclusive of the gold crown and tiara of stars on her head, is just under five feet tall. The sculpture is stylistically in keeping with the Flemish baroque of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
These numbers do not acknowledge the countless Black Madonnas that have existed throughout Africa and Asia since the beginnings of Christianity, the rich traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox church as some of the earliest in church history, or more contemporary artistry taking up the Black Madonna as subject.
For the history of this term and its erasure, see Bailey and Trudy 2018.
As previously noted, in the one other painting that features a Black woman (The Finding of Moses), the Black woman is depicted with a head covering of similar style to the woman in The Rape of the Negress. Though the Black woman in the former scene is but one servant of the Pharoah’s daughter among two others (again, all three of whom are naked, with the one facing the viewer covered from her lower waist to her thigh with a sheer fabric), the Black woman is the only one with a head covering. The archives rarely mention or interpret the bonnet on the woman’s head in either of these images, or if there is a connection to the marking of someone who prostitutes—though the style is slightly different, the woman in Couwenbergh’s Brothel Scene has a scarf over her hair, a notable exception for Couwenbergh’s portraiture. As per The Rape of the Negress, I will also note here that there is little development on the significance or implications of the dressed man’s costume as further detail that may elucidate Couwenbergh’s choices here.
Hortense Spillers’s (1987) analysis of patriarchalized gender is an extremely helpful analytic for the ways the Black woman in this image is not granted the graces of being seen as a woman within patriarchal society, but as something outside of the category or demands of gendered performance or access.